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Custodian turned hero

Coach Derrick Hamilton saves the life of a choking student
Coach+and+custodian+Derrick+Hamilton+handles+regular+business+in+the+cafeteria.+I+saw+the+fear+in+his+face+and+jumped+into+action%2C+he+said.
Ella Dorfman
Coach and custodian Derrick Hamilton handles regular business in the cafeteria. “I saw the fear in his face and jumped into action,” he said.

Students speaking, yelling and eating. April 3 was a typical Wednesday in the cafeteria — until it wasn’t.

“This one kid came up to me, but I could not really understand him because everybody was talking at once,” custodian Derrick Hamilton said. “He got in my face saying his friend was choking. I saw the fear in his face and jumped into action.”

Hamilton started the Heimlich maneuver on sophomore John Mullen as soon as he saw him. Although CPR is a requirement for coaches, the Heimlich is not. Hamilton, who has coached basketball, track and bowling, said he was taught the Heimlich from growing up in his mother’s daycare.

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“I just saw right off who was in distress because he was turning blue,” Hamilton said. “My mom had a daycare for 40 years, so I was always around kids. You just never know when a toddler or anyone will choke. It was easier to do the Heimlich because [Mullen] was standing up. If he was lying down, I would go ahead to CPR.”

Hamilton said he was glad to be there because originally he had planned to attend senior Kiera Runske’s lacrosse signing to Vanderbilt University in the media center that day. Hamilton went on the walkie-talkie and put out an SOS.

“I thought I should stay [in the cafeteria that day] because students are even wild when administration is in there, so I thought if nobody’s in there, they will be wild,” Hamilton said. “There were only us two adults, [me and guidance counselor Kimberly Strauch], besides the lunch ladies behind the counter. Usually there are multiple custodians and administrators, but they were not there because of the signing.”

Principal Rick Fleming, who was in the media center during Runske’s signing, said it is an unwritten rule for one staff member to stay behind.

“I was in the middle of going up to get a picture when I heard the walkie-talkie go off,” Fleming said. “I turned it down because I had to go up, and usually it’s something the staff can handle. It wasn’t until I saw Officer Valerie Butler and [Assistant Principal] Glenn Webb run out of the media center when I knew that it was something. Thank God [Hamilton] was there.”

Mullen had tried to swallow an eight-inch meat stick, which lodged in his throat. Mullen’s friend tried to perform the Heimlich to no avail. That’s when they approached Hamilton.

“No one was egging me to do it,” Mullen said. “My friends were like ‘You probably can’t do it’ and I was like ‘I probably can.’ In that moment, I thought I could. It didn’t quite work out. I started choking and coughing up bile. Then, I felt pure fear.”

After he dislodged the meat stick, emergency medical services workers arrived in the cafeteria.

“The EMS said ten or fifteen seconds later he could have been unconscious, and and you never want to be unconscious when you’re choking,” Hamilton said. “That’s pretty much the death sentence, they say. Eighty percent of the time, you don’t come out of it. First in the Heimlich, I saw he had thrown up because he tried to put water behind it. I felt better because I knew some air was getting there. So [the meat stick] came out maybe twenty seconds after he threw up.”

Fleming said “there must have been a guardian angel looking out for Mullen.”

“When the EMS people got there, they said it takes them five or six minutes to respond,” Fleming said. “If it weren’t for Hamilton, this would have been a very different outcome.”

Hamilton said he had been trained to understand concussions as a coach, but not on saving someone from choking.

“When I was younger, I did some tourniquets,” Hamilton said. “Somebody’s bleeding and tied up real tight with a shoestring, stuff like that, but nothing life-saving. As a coach, you look out for concussions. Heimlich is if you’re in a fine restaurant eating and somebody’s choking on something.”

Mullen said he owes his life to Hamilton.

“He’s a great guy; without him and God I would be dead,” Mullen said. “Until the moment it came out, I wasn’t sure I was going to live. I thought that was it.”

It wasn’t until Mullen was out of danger that Hamilton took time to reflect.

“Everybody was hollering, everybody was in distress and kids were crying,” Hamilton said. “I would never want to see that look on any kid’s face.”

Fleming said in his 37 years in education, he has never seen “something like this.”

“It was surreal to see the the looks on the students’ faces of horror, bewilderment and helplessness,” Fleming said. “It was finally relieving when the students came up and hugged Hamilton. I have lost students to different things, whether they be car accidents or off campus. But I’ve never lost a student on campus, knock on wood. This was as close as I’ve ever come to that happening.”

Fleming commended Hamilton at Friday’s spring pep rally.

“I didn’t want to go to the rally,” Hamilton said. “I thought it was just for my track team and stuff like that, but it hits you out of the wild when you see so many people feeling great about something you did.”

Fleming said he “got choked up” at the pep rally when Hamilton came out.

“It was nice because we were able to do it in front of the students, and it was important to do that,” Fleming said. “I’m just so thankful he was there. He’s never had to do that in real life until now, but he has always been ready and cares. He loves you guys as if as if you were his own kids. It was an emotional experience for our entire school, and the fact that Hamilton is who he is and is already so popular amongst the student body just elevated his credit even more.”

It took a few days for Hamilton to fully process what had happened.

“My wife took me over to Tampa so I could decompress, and I talked my brother-in-law who is an EMT,” Hamilton said. “They do this job and get paid to do it. [My brother-in-law] said, ‘We get emotional when we lose kids and people, this is not what a normal American or somebody does.’ He said eight out of ten people wouldn’t know what to do.”

Hamilton said the conversation with his brother-in-law made him value life more.

“He told me to appreciate all this gratitude with people,” Hamilton said. “It made me break down and see that. I don’t like attention, but I understand it now. I like to do my coaching and be a custodian, and I’m here for you guys in so many ways to try to keep the school clean and sanitary.”

The fire department also plans to recognize Hamilton soon.

“I am not sure when they will come, but I will keep an eye out,” Hamilton said. “It could be this week, it could be next week, but whenever it is, I’m ready to accept it.”

This story was originally published on The Roar on April 10, 2024.